How dogs help kids learn to read at Philly’s Free Library

The program is possible thanks to a handful of volunteer therapy pups.

Konig, a Bernese Mountain Dog, at the Queen Memorial Library

Konig, a Bernese Mountain Dog, at the Queen Memorial Library

Mónica Marie Zorrilla / Billy Penn

All of the small children sitting on the rainbow carpet at Queen Memorial Library in Point Breeze are transfixed. Despite the usual temperament of three-year-olds, this group neither whines nor complains.

They pay close attention to librarian Elizabeth Gardiner’s effusive reading of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. What’s keeping the small bodies in check? The attentiveness likely has to do with the chocolate-colored gentle giant sprawled across the rug in front of them.

Konig, a seven-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, is one of a handful of pups who volunteer their time to providing “judgment-free” zones at select Free Library locations. Each month, he patiently listens to over-enthused narration and pants along to silly sing-a-longs with 15 to 20 daycare-aged children.

The idea isn’t novel — but it’s getting more and more popular.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

The concept likely originated in 1999 at Intermountain Therapy Animals in Utah, which introduced a comprehensive R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) literacy program. In Philadelphia, the “Read With A Dog” program has been in place since at least November 2015, according to Meredith McGovern, a children’s librarian at the Falls of Schuylkill Library, and had been running years before that with one particular therapy pooch who loved books.

The benefits to having therapy dogs around children at a library are multiple, McGovern said.

Though the kids are initially ecstatic to be in the presence of the furry animals, therapy dogs have a way of bringing a calm and relaxing energy to the space, she explained, allowing rambunctious toddlers to settle down and focus on their reading. They also provide comfort, which can make kids who are anxious about reading aloud to a group feel safer.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

There’s research to back up their claims that children benefit not only academically, but socially and emotionally when reading to dogs.

In 2010, UC Davis Veterinary Medical Extension conducted a study on the positive impacts that reading to dogs has on youth. A study of third-grade students in the Dixon Unified School District found that students who participated in the program for 10 weeks improved their fluency by 12 percent. The kids self-reported that they felt more “relaxed and confident” when they were reading to dogs.

At Queen Memorial Library this week, I was able to witness the almost mystical connection that occurs between young children, a happy librarian and a well-behaved and unfazed dog at these sessions. At the end of the hour, it was apparent that the children have all gotten something special out of the experience.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

So far, “Read With A Dog!” is available at the following branches: Falls of Schuylkill, Queen Memorial, Overbrook Park, Lillian Marrero, Whitman and Ramonita G. de Rodriguez.

But this isn’t a program that all Philadelphia libraries offer — some can’t afford to. The programming budget for most of the 54 Philadelphia libraries (excluding the main branch) is $400 for the entire year. It used to be $500, but was reduced this year. Gardiner said she looked into partnering with PAWS to make the dog-readings less expensive, Gardiner said, but she would still have had to shell out nearly half of her annual programming budget.

At Falls of Schuylkill Library, no programming money is needed for the sessions, per McGovern, because Wally and Orchid come with handlers who volunteer their pets and their time free of charge.

“I’m really lucky to have found Comfort Caring Canines and Therapy Dogs International,” Gardiner continued. “They’ve provided volunteers for no cost whatsoever. If not… We wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

Gardiner wishes they could have the program at Queen Memorial Library more than once a month, to provide multiple opportunities that accommodate for working parents or other extracurricular activities, but with recent reductions to hours, one Tuesday morning is all the library can handle for now.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

After zipping through three books at Queen Memorial Library this past Tuesday — all bear themed, because, as Gardiner pointed out, Konig does look like miniature Grizzly — the kids were so elated to finally touch the dog they were almost shaking. But they contain themselves. Quietly, and with express permission of their daycare instructors and parents, they go one-by-one to gently pat Konig.

One child was rough and clunky with his hands, as kids are wont to be, but Konig’s handler, Emily Hosmer told the crowd not to worry. “Konig’s good for this job because he’s indestructible,” she said, laughing.

Charming as he is, Konig doesn’t monopolize the children’s attention. They soon begin wandering off to look at the other books and exploring the vibrant surroundings of the  children’s section. They’ve been made into bookworms and into dog aficionados, all in one go.

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